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Miss Julie | Study Guide

August Strindberg

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Miss Julie | Themes


"The Battle of the Brains"

Throughout his life August Strindberg saw the thought process as a struggle of opposing wills and individuals seeking to discover truth against the rule of the status quo. Opposition to his ideas in Sweden, where even the royal establishment was against him, drove him, like many intellectuals and artists in history, to leave and take his battle into exile. Physically and geographically removed from the conservative forces he saw as the enemy, he was freer to enter the struggle as an outsider. All human dynamic to him was a clash of those who chose to think for themselves and expand their mental horizons against those who chose to limit inquiry. In his essay "The Battle of the Brains," Strindberg wrote that people had to do combat with their wills and nerve to gain dominance over those who resisted change.

His plays would reveal this split of a "great" and unlimited brain that would battle against the small-mindedness of a common population or mob mentality. What would appear to be an abnormal mental state was, in his view, a necessity for bringing in the ability to take on the opposition, to imagine, if not actually commit, a "psychic crime" that the unenlightened small brain could not comprehend except in traditional ways that would smother new attitudes. But the lines are often unclear. In Miss Julie both Jean and Miss Julie have longings for change that clash with each other because they are both handicapped by false values of social climbing and snobbery, on the one hand, and a confused sexuality on the other. There are no winners in such battles, when the forces arrayed against them maintain their own hold on power and the ability to damn those who dare to rebel.

Jean and Miss Julie declare a kind of war on each other in discovering the essence of the other, so they cannot be allies against the status quo. Rather they must allow, in the growth of their ideas, the realization they are also failed creatures. After discovering the aristocratic Miss Julie is severely limited in her ability to act, Jean says, "It hurts me to have discovered that what I was striving to reach is neither better nor more genuine. It hurts me to see you sinking so low that you are far beneath your own cook," for Christina is the only one who does act on the basis of principle.

Class Struggle

August Strindberg, the artist, wrote often about people caught up in class warfare. In his autobiography, The Son of a Servant, he expresses confusion and anguish over his background. His father's seemingly higher status as compared with his mother's was no protection from misfortune and shame once bankruptcy hit the family, and his uncertainties over his own position tormented him when he came into contact with those of higher standing. His fatal attraction to Siri von Essen revealed the need to enter conflict with those above himself, and the consequent humiliations he endured and inflicted became material for much of his writing. Strindberg was ostracized by the upper classes, the established Lutheran Church, and royalty in his native country, and for the rest of his life and career he fought to find a surer ground for acceptance. In his long wanderings across Europe, he continued to find the classes in conflict over economic and social positions and endeavored in his writing to give voice to the longings for emancipation mixed with doubts that many were capable of fashioning new identities for themselves as long as their brains and souls were still under social conditioning from the past.

From the initial pages of Miss Julie there is discussion about social roles and behavior. Jean and Christine take pleasure in criticizing Miss Julie for not acting the part of her class and stooping so low in her attempt to gain solidarity with those thought to be inferior. Consequently, she loses support from all. Jean himself takes on gentlemanly airs from his minimal exposure, as a servant, to the upper classes and aspires to be what they are and have what they have. But knowing who he is and what he needs, he is unwilling to sacrifice his current position for anything uncertain. He judges Miss Julie, concluding she is "too stuck up in some ways and not proud enough in others." Christine, who has limited aspirations of any kind, sees Jean's posturing use of French expressions for food and wine will have no appeal outside of the kitchen where they are both spending most of their time. She calls him "Mr. Finicky," claiming he is "harder to please than the count himself!" Arguably, however, a more insidious example of class struggle is less of a struggle than a character's materialistic nature. Already losing interest because he had no trouble seducing her, Jean loses more interest in Miss Julie when he learns she has no money of her own.

The entire play can be seen as one battle in class warfare, in this case in rural Sweden. In the larger world Strindberg wished to portray, however, it was part of the greater battle of individuals of any class anywhere and everywhere to open their lives and the world in general to change.

Animal and Human Natures

August Strindberg made many observations and contrasts on the mysterious depths of creation, as he sought to explore it in his love for all occult approaches to knowledge. His paintings and other experiments in artistic creation also broke with traditional ways of knowing, from using triple-exposure photography (superimposing three images to make it one) to painting shifting perspectives and abstractions in nature that changed constantly. No aspect of nature was too remote for his efforts, leading him to experience drugs and questionable substances such as absinthe.

Nor did his boundaries stop beyond the animal world, for other creatures could also be portrayed without limits. The first images in Miss Julie, for example, concern the connection of the restless young noblewoman with her favorite dog named Diana, named after the mythological Roman goddess of the hunt (Artemis in the Greek version). At the first mention of Miss Julie, she is judged to be under the influences of her hormones, made clearer with a direct reference to menstruation as having "her time now" and during it is "always a little queer like that." This was hardly a common topic of literature in a conservative northern society.

Moreover, direct connection is made to her pet dog who, the implication is, may have been in heat—as Miss Julie appears to be when she dances suggestively—and mated with a mongrel male, like Jean. The human characters, too, are reversing the natural order of things in their actions and speech. Strindberg uses the term bitch to refer to both the animal and the passionate behavior of Miss Julie, who insists on flirting until she falls victim to her own passions.

As she must accept her "fallen" position after leaving Jean's bedroom, her fate becomes linked to another animal, the caged bird that becomes a bloody sacrifice to male violence. Its helplessness is linked with Miss Julie's vulnerability within the social order, but the blood it spills brings about one of her most explosive diatribes: "Kill me too! Kill me! ... Oh, I hate and despise you! There is blood between us! Cursed be the hour when I first met you!" She finally will take the razor and allow the power of Jean's self-protective will to dispose of her, too.

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